Some of the most common questions I get are about what I eat when I go backpacking. Everyone has their own preferences, but after many trips I've narrowed down some of my favorite foods that are packable, nutritious, and get me excited for meals.
Despite most people thinking backpackers eat trail mix for days straight (if you do, more power to you!), I really enjoy variety and indulging when I'm in the mountains, and I'm willing to carry the extra weight to treat myself to proper meals. I'm pretty much the opposite of an ultralight backpacker, and my only requirements are my meals need to be:
1. Relatively packable and nonperishable
2. Filling/high in calories
Also, since most of my backpacking trips are short (1-3 nights) my meals can be more extravagant. When I go for longer trips, I definitely cut down and choose the lighter, more compact meal version of the ideas below.
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Oatmeal - for longer trips I'll bag the oatmeal packet and some powdered milk (my favorite is Nestle Nido) for the extra calories and richness. If I'm extra hungry that morning I'll also throw in some trail mix.
Milk and cereal - For mornings where I don't want to whip out the stove, I'll dump a ziplock bag of pre-portioned cereal like bran flakes or granola with some Nestle Nido powdered milk. The best part is you only need to add cold water!
Poptarts - These are great for those mornings I crave a sugar boost. You can eat them on the trail and don't have to worry about dishes. My favorite way to consume is eating them semi-frozen (seriously!).
Coffee - Do yourself a favor and get the Starbucks single serving packets. They're so much more $$$ but that much more delicious (best prices I've seen are in bulk at Costco). Some people like to bring creamer, but I find adding a little bit of my trusty powdered milk does wonders and is a lighter alternative.
Chai - Another great way to start the morning, and Chai always tastes better in the mountains!
Gourmet pizza - every person I've taken backpacking absolutely loves this one, and they will constantly tell me how much they crave it, even after the trip! It consists of:
Tortilla - my favorites are spinach, whole wheat, or even pita for a heartier base, and if you have the room
Pizza sauce - which I usually empty into a double-bagged ziplock sandwich bag
Cheese - baby bell cheese, any wax covered cheese, or individually wrapped pre-sliced cheese
Salami - my favorite is the dried salami with the white coating, but you can also use regular packaged sliced salami if you don't want the hassle of slicing the sausage
Sun-dried tomatoes - julienne sliced adds that extra gourmet touch
Each person will get two of them. This meal seriously will get me through a hard day of climbing!
Gourmet pizzas can also be modified for longer trips by just using crackers, cheese, and salami - it’s essentially a grown-up version of lunchables
Tuna and crackers - I love the Sunkist single serving packets with different flavors (lemon pepper and ranch are my favorite), and you can use any cracker that packs well like as Wheat Thins, Triscuits, water crackers, or even saltines
Recently there have been many more options for freeze dried meals coming out on the market. Now there are brands catering to all kinds of diets and lifestyles. I usually opt for dehydrated meals for convenience. Unlike normal cooking, you save fuel by not having to simmer a pot and you don't need to do any dishes - you just pour some boiling water into the bag itself, and let it sit! I also like to reuse the resealable bags as a trash bag.
Tip: you can save a little money at REI if you buy in bulk. For example they usually will always be running a 10% off if you buy 8.
Wild Zora (no artificial ingredients, paleo, gluten & dairy free, minimally processed, woman-owned) - these taste starkly different than your typical budget dehydrated food packs. You can tell that the ingredients are clean and there are no additives, and I really enjoy these especially on multi day trips when other cheaper alternatives make me feel bloated.
Good To-Go - has fun flavors like Bibimbap and Pad Thai to satisfy my ethnic food cravings when I’m tired of your typical cheesy or creamy food packets
Mountain House - these are a crowd pleaser at the end of a hard hiking day. If you opt for the larger sizes and split up the servings, this is one of the best value options out there. My favorite flavors are the Lasagna, Beef Stroganoff, and Chili Mac. Typically coming in portions of 1-2.5, the large can contains 10 servings, which I’ll divvy up a single serving into a ziplock bag for each night. Costco also has started selling variety packs of Mountain House.
Backpacker’s Pantry/Peak Refuel - if you don’t need the big boy cans and are just looking for a meal for one to two nights, there are lots of options for you. I’ve found these other brands to be just as tasty and usually comes down to what flavors I feel like eating.
Instant potatoes - I always go for the Idahoan packets since they have a variety of delicious and rich flavors. These serve so well as a side with any dehydrated meal, are super filling, easy to pack, and can even be made without boiling water.
Freeze dried meals can get expensive, so a cheaper alternative is the Knorrs Pastas that you can find in any grocery. These used to be our go to dinner choice because of their incredible price point and variety of flavors, but you do end up using a bit more fuel to simmer the pasta, and you will have to clean the pot at the end of your meal.
A big part of backpacking is the snacks! It's important to always keep your energy up on the trail and be continuously snacking throughout the day. For long trips I'll divvy up my snacks for each day into personal sized bags to make sure I'm rationing and eating enough each day.
Edit: since writing this post, there have been many great reusable bag options that I highly recommend to reduce your plastic use. I’ve personally found some of the more popular brands on Amazon work just as well!
Some of my favorite trail snacks include:
Sandwich crackers - these pack a surprisingly large caloric punch
Fig newtons - enough said
Peanut butter - I've packed an entire jar of peanut butter in my pack once. One of the foods with the highest calorie per ounce ratio you can pack, I eat it plain or dip just about anything into the jar.
Sour candy is a favorite amongst backpackers - the sour flavor is so refreshing and strangely envigorating on the trail
Emergen-C - tastes like delicious fruity soda to me, and it gives me an extra boost of Vitamin C
Candy - I always have to end the day with something sweet, so don't feel guilty about packing some of your favorite candy. For me my go to is fruit snacks, peanut m&ms, or gummy bears
Tea or Hot Cocoa - Another great way to end the day and warm up on those particularly chilly nights is to make some hot water for an evening warm beverage
For more special occasions or really casual overnight trips with friends, I also highly recommend boxed wine and a mini charcuterie spread. It gets me excited just thinking about it! Try it out and let me know how you like it.
I'll re-bag most of the packed foods into individual bags the night before. I also highly recommend using reusable silicone bags. This cuts down on carrying around the bulky packaging that comes with a lot of the food you buy, resulting in less food trash throughout the weekend. If you do use ziploc plastic bags, try to repurpose them throughout my trip for a variety of needs on the trail - trash bags, waterproofing small electronics, organizing.
Be Bear Safe
Here in California most places either require you to hike with bear cans or hang your food from a tree. I almost always bring my Bear Vault BV500 bear canister on every trip to the Sierra and have to make sure all my food and trash for the weekend can fit inside. Be sure to check the regulations and guidelines in your area.
One of my favorite things about taking backpacking trips is experimenting and figuring out what works best for me. Food is such an important part of any trip I take, backcountry or not, and there's something special about coming together at the end of a long day and appreciating the simple joys in life like a hot cup of tea or bowl of saucy noodles while watching the sunset.